• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Three uncomfortable anecdotes

Three stories to start – the first of them generically true-to-life, the second adapted from personal experience, and the last an actual series of intertwined events.

Displacement #1: Tools

You’re seated quietly in the corner of a cozy little brasserie in Paris. You’ve struggled through the menu (there’s no English version available), lodged your order, and the food and drink you requested have been delivered. But there’s a problem: you can’t begin to eat because you’re lacking a fork and spoon. Easy enough to remedy the situation if you could resort to your native language, but try as you might you just can’t dredge up from your high school French the magical words you need to negotiate this “implement shortfall.” No: fourchette and cuillère lie tantalizingly beyond your active vocabulary, lost in the mists of time – somewhere behind your teacher’s smiling insistence on the familiar versus the formal “you.” And there you sit, feeling quite powerless.

Displacement #2: Trains

Imagine yourself rolling through the German countryside, reading a favorite novel, sipping tea, and marveling at the coverage and on-time performance of the European train system. That Eurail pass that your cousin insisted on purchasing for you has made possible so many new adventures, and at such a bargain price. Now it’s off to Greece, then Istanbul, and even your second-class sleeper seems like a luxury.

But suddenly the train begins to slow and then stops, curiously enough, with not a station in sight. Word circulates among the multilingual community onboard that because of rerouting (due to a washed-out bridge) the engine has exceeded its allotted time commitment and is presently disattaching itself from the 20 or so cars it’s been pulling since Munich. With a promise to send a replacement, the engineer abruptly excuses himself and chugs off, leaving his passengers stranded in then-Yugoslavia with no alternative transportation.

The railway cars start to empty out and micro-communities begin to form, sorted out roughly by language and home region. Western European passengers are concerned about the unexpected development and earnestly discuss the engineer’s parting assurances and the (lack of) options, while their American colleagues fret and argue angrily among themselves, outraged over the inconvenience and what they see as an abrogation of responsibility. Central European passengers, on the other hand, simply break out the food and drink that they have brought along with them, precisely in case something like this might arise. They offer bread, cheese, and smiles of bemused resignation to those whose cultural horizons have left them anxious, frustrated, and impatient for the kind of resolution they could accept. After a while, with melding promoted by wine, food-exchange, and good humor, the micro-communities begin to merge, and everyone rests more easily until the substitute engine miraculously arrives the next day.

Displacement #3: Coffee

Some years ago during a six-month stay in Belgrade I developed a decided taste for Turkish coffee, a kind of high-octane espresso with considerable sediment lurking at the bottom of the tiny cup. But although my language skills were in most cases serviceable, I seemed to have trouble effectively ordering my beverage of choice at cafés. A request for kahva (coffee) would produce only a very milky, lukewarm latte, while the more definitive turska kahva (Turkish coffee) or crna kahva (black coffee) would produce the correct result severely compromised by a disapproving grimace. Like the prospective diner in the Parisian brasserie, I felt powerless, and things only got more embarrassing with every visit.

In response, I made it a personal challenge to overcome the linguistic barrier and figure out what was wrong. First I tried more sophisticated grammar: crnu kahvu, the same phrase inflected as the direct object of an understood root sentence, “I would like to have….” Surely this in-language agility would impress the person behind the counter and remove the telltale grimace. But no, his stare was just as withering, a sure sign that I hadn’t yet discovered the right code. So the next step was to resort to fieldwork – by sidling up to other patrons who were both native speakers and local urbanites, I planned to eavesdrop on how they accomplished the miracle of culturally sanctioned coffee-ordering. And, sure enough, the third or fourth man – for men ordered differently than did women – solved my dilemma in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. He used the phrase crnu kahvu, all right, but he absolutely growled it, clipping the second syllable off the first word and acting (from my extracultural point of view) with unforgivable rudeness. I felt badly about the apparently dismissive way he conducted himself, but no one else did.

So I stepped up to the counter, mustered my best dismissiveness, and growled the appropriately abbreviated code at the poor, undeserving attendant. Miracle of miracles, he responded not only with a precious cup of highly caffeinated nectar but with an open-mouthed, approving smile. The moral of the story? “Rudeness” was clearly expected and highly valued because in that cultural arena it was idiomatic.

Foreign agoras

It’s easy to experience culture shock when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar setting, unequipped to manage its language and culture. But the same is also true when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar agora, unequipped to manage the local technology for communication. Nor is the phenomenon restricted to any one word-marketplace; it’s just a question of where you’re coming from versus where you happen to find yourself.

tAgora challenges

Finding yourself in the tAgora without even the most basic literacy skills leads to the most obvious form of text-based culture shock, and it’s a dilemma faced by millions of people worldwide every day. But that’s not the end of it, not at all, for “literacy” isn’t a single ability or condition. More specialized transactions, such as writing reports or newspaper stories or romance novels or corporate memos, show that literacy “writ large” consists of an infinite collection of skills, many of them requiring substantial time and energy to learn and interpret. Those lacking the more specialized skills may feel fully as helpless as anyone trying to manage a foreign language or culture.

eAgora challenges

Pity the IT-phobic person who has to wrestle with an eAgora agenda of software installations, uploads and downloads, highly secure passwords, and indecipherable error messages; without someone who “speaks the language,” they’re in the same position as the tool-less diner. Almost always the IT (Internet Technology) version of culture shock results from unquestioned and unexamined immersion in the tAgora, from having one’s cognitive defaults effectively set to “text only.” With that set of built-in and unexamined expectations, the web will always seem treacherous and insubstantial, a will o’ th’ wisp that you can’t quite get your hands on, an ethereal sort of experience that vanishes without the trace you need to credit its real existence. The very virtuality that makes eCommunication possible becomes unnerving and disorienting, not seldom prompting defensiveness and outright avoidance. You may as well be trying to get yourself some Turkish coffee without growling.

oAgora challenges

But culture shock isn’t limited to the discomfort associated with underdeveloped tAgora skills or seemingly rudderless navigation within the eAgora. It can plague foreign visitors to the oAgora as well, leading to what we might call oAgoraphobia. Consider the generations of well-meaning scholar-fieldworkers who have sought to better understand oral traditions by entering strange new worlds. They opt to leave well-charted, already negotiated environments in order to live in societies that depend heavily or exclusively on the oAgora for their daily transactions. But what lies beneath this program for “foreign exchange”?

Well, it starts with cognitively predisposed scholars, people who spend their lives using texts as their primary communicative medium, who choose to enter a world that does nothing of the sort. As well prepared as they may think they are, they cannot leave their predispositions about reality and its faithful portrayal entirely behind. For many years the goal of such activities was to collect – that is, to record, isolate, and remove from social context – and then to edit and publish what they unearthed (and in part created). Editing allowed researchers to “clean up” their recordings, to “correct” what informants said, in short to remove the last vestiges of process and convert their captured quarry to acceptable freestanding products. Publishing essentially made those products shelvable and thus usable by tAgora consumers of static and complete-in-themselves items, objective things that qualified for canonization and deposit in the Museum of Verbal Art.

And why was this obviously reductive paradigm followed, until recently at least? Quite clearly, because oAgora culture shock was too much for text-bound researchers. There simply was no other way for self-respecting tAgora citizens – at least those who were limited to single-agora fluency – to understand and explain an oral tradition. They did what we all do if we’re not paying close attention: they translated the foreign reality back into domestic-agora terms, representing what they encountered as something it was not. In later years, and particularly with the advent of digital and Internet technology, that kind of translation has become more faithful. There is newfound attention to social context, process, emergence, performance, and other features that make oral tradition a decidedly non-textual – and finally non-textualizable – medium. Multi-agora fluency, with attention to the rules that govern communication in each venue, has mitigated this particular species of culture shock.

Thwarting recurrence

Culture shock once experienced can be hard to dispel. The only real cure – the only remedy that promises to help with future as well as immediate problems – is to learn the language or culture or agora well enough to cope, if still and forever as an outsider. This lesson is absolutely transparent for utensil-seekers, for example, and we all appreciate the practical reality that living inside a foreign community for a substantial period generally vaccinates a person against chronic recurrence of this dread disease. And traveling by train can prove not only a relaxing, rewarding pleasure, but an opportunity for continuing education as peers from other social orbits introduce us to viable contexts we never knew existed. Serial fieldwork such as that described in the Belgrade coffee episode can also go a long way toward not only solving specific problems but also coming to understand that an alternative and even counter-intuitive way of doing things could exist. In all three cases, people outside the language and culture make an effort to interpret the new situation on its own terms, aiming toward a workable cultural fluency that exposes their own cognitive biases at the same time that it opens them up to new channels, new code, and new kinds of exchanges.

The displacement anxiety caused by “residence” in a foreign agora can of course be handled with a cognate solution: learn and apply the rules of the particular word-marketplace in which you find yourself, rather than those you unconsciously import from outside. No matter which agora you hail from (for almost all of us, at least for the moment, the tAgora), seek at least secondary citizenship in your new context. Pluralize your perspective; diversify your frame of reference.

Better coping through homology

In addition, the Pathways Project also offers another remedy, one born of the OT-IT homology that lies at its heart. To put it aphoristically, when as a tAgora citizen you find yourself working and communicating in the oAgora or eAgora, be ready to navigate through networks rather than trek through texts. Put aside the expectations that arise from the ideology of texts – that knowledge, art, and ideas can be converted to finite, fixed things – and embrace the reality that you are negotiating and co-creating reality through exploring pathways. Give up the intense tAgora pressure to own and to sequester, and concentrate on sharing resources. In short, recognize the fundamental democracy of the oAgora and eAgora, which operate, and in fact prosper, by remaining forever under construction.